TOC Second class citizens without papers Your Turn

February 15, 2011

To the classic "in medio stat virtus", one can oppose "because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth". It is this latter, more apocalyptic view which fits our Information Age. Farewell to the middle class. As society divides itself between data lords and data slaves, no wonder our Age comes to look more and more like the Middle Ages, without the faith.

John Gapper sees the fate of our daily newspapers in much the same way. "The news business is evolving with bulges on both ends and little in the middle [...] replaced by a combination of cheap mass products and expensive elite ones" (*). He has a point David Carr makes more personal. "For those of us who make a living typing, it's all very scary, of course" (**). Without newspapers to pay their salaries, journalists join "a nation of serfs".

The high end is based upon investors' ability to turn news into money. To such professionals, the time window, however small, between the breaking of the news and its becoming common knowledge has great value they willingly pay for.

John Gapper sees a future there for the Financial Times as it "launch[es] newsletter-like digital subscription sites such as Brazil Confidential and FT Tilt". Selling in-depth analysis at a profit is hard, however, and the analyst's independence subject to many temptations. It is easier to compete on speed and productivity in propagating market moving news and Bloomberg L.P. might be more representative of John Gapper's elite.

The low end enables society itself to do the reporting for free, in snippets coming anytime, from anywhere to be consumed "anytime, anywhere". Apropos a company for which "AOL will pay $315 million, $300 of it in cash", Jeremy W. Peters and Verne G. Kopytoff write "one of The Huffington Post's strengths has been creating an online community of readers with ten of millions of people" (***). Readers-writers actually.

The traditional middle must then live on the same advertising revenues as the low end while paying far more for its professional content. Asking consumers to pay is not a panacea. According to David Gelles, Rupert Murdoch's new creation proposes "subscription [...] of $1 per week, or $40 a year" (****). For a twentieth or so of a New York Times subscription, can The Daily deliver a "journalistic quality [...] of enduring value" (1)?

Perhaps we should take a historical perspective. Focusing on the Western experience, we can distinguish three stages. Until the XVIIIth century, artistic creation was centered on the patron, be it a Church institution or a court. While artists were considered to be but craftsmen, even though highly skilled, writers were split between the patrons themselves, as talented amateurs, and paid performers. The second stage, whose end we witness today, recentered artistic creation around the creator, backed by the commercial channels which distributed his or her copyrighted output..

The mistake would be to imbue this evolution with a sense of linear progress. The independent author, able to live from a chosen vocation coupled with a recognized talent, appears as dispensible as former aristocratic courts. The third stage which takes shape in front of our eyes is centered around the crowd, whose free, spontaneous expression overwhelms any talent it may deign to embrace with its fleeting gift of popularity.

This does not mean creators worthy of our admiration will vanish. Indeed they have always existed. Once again though, authors will split between those who are independently wealthy and those who, as professors, preachers, performers and public relation hired hands, wield the pen as a tool. Once again a certain humility will become those who used to be the stars. As Simon Kuper puts it, "there's a moral here for strivers: oversight and the wisdom of crowds generally trump lone great men" (*****). Writing about a soccer referee, he sees applications beyond the limits of his pitch.

Neither does it mean the crowd operates in a vacuum. But rather than a patron or a publisher, content delivery is now the task of aggregators, of which The Huffington Post is a prime example. It is not the only model. When the crowd itself makes the news, Facebook best reports its being made. Also read Jenna Wortham on how tools like Readability let the consumers themselves act as their own aggregators, foraging everywhere for information during the day, digesting the resulting accumulation during "a personalized prime time", such as "from 8 to 10 p.m." (******).

Aggregators normally recommend information based on the popularity the crowd assigns to it. As a low end tool, they are antithetical to traditional publishers, whose added value ought to be recommenders based on expertise. But the same approach is unexpectedly turning into a dangerous but necessary tool for the high end also. Hasn't Graham Bowley described how "robo-readers [...] try to analyze market sentiment", say by automatically scanning Twitter messages, for the benefit of "news agencies like Bloomberg, Dow Jones and Thomson Reuters" (*******)?

Each stage strengthens its model through self-reinforcing feedback. If professional authors tend to be crowded out today, it is not only because each one of us has become a content provider. It is also because, as readers, we have become unused to read more than a snippet at a time. My own lengthy fillips are inspired by quoted authors (2) whose well considered output I enjoy reading at some length. But my behavior, whether as reader or writer, harks back to the disappearing middle class and newspapers cannot hope to survive on the likes of me.

Professional authors are therefore a luxury, a costly one at that. The Huffington Post "has started to invest more in original reporting and writing". Can it afford it? "The Daily's success will be determined by [...] its originality". Will it rather try to dazzle us with new media pyrotechnics? Jeremy W. Peters tells us Bloomberg L.P. plans to "publish[...] editorials across its vast media enterprise in an effort to broaden the company's influence on national affairs" (********). Here is hope. The patron is rich and partisan editorials gain in authenticity from being put in a professional context.

There is still one known unknown. What if personalized advertising diverted enough money from consumers' pockets to content providers?

There is no doubt a clever matching between consumers and advertisers creates considerable value. But who will get the bigger share? It stands to reason the money will flow to the party holding the consumer's profile. Without it, a content provider is but a space seller who can only hope for marginal gains, good enough for a low cost content aggregator, far short of supporting the luxurious life style of a "premium content company".

But when it comes down to consumer data aggregation, professionally produced content adds little compared to search engines and social sites while tethered device operators keep consumers at arm length from content providers as long as such devices remain exclusive fashion statements.

It is true digital content providers emphasize the bond created by satisfying their readers' expectations for "content tailored to their specific interests". Still, as long as they decline to solidify the value of this bond by virtuously respecting readers' eprivavy, premium content companies remain easy prey for lower cost, naturally unscrupulous alternatives, whether to harvest the profiles or capture the attention of hapless consumers.

Both fated to be exploited as second class citizens without papers, consumers and journalists have thus much in common. Which way to Tahrir Sq.?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............... Huffington is right to take the cash, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - February 10, 2011
  • (**) ............. Online, A Nation Of Serfs, by David Carr (New York Times) - February 14, 2011
  • (***) ........... Betting On News, AOL Plans To Buy Huffington Post, by Jeremy W. Peters and Verne G. Kopytoff (New York Times) - February 7, 2011
  • (****) ......... News Corp's Daily update for iPad, by David Gelles (Financial Times) - February 3, 2011
  • (*****) ....... Toppled in the fog of war, by Simon Kuper (Financial Times) - February 12, 2011
  • (******) ..... Apps Alter Reading On the Web, by Jenna Wortham (New York Times) - February 1, 2011
  • (*******) ... Computers That Trade On the News, by Graham Bowley (New York Times) - December 23, 2010
  • (********) . Bloomberg To Publish Editorials, by Jeremy W. Peters (New York Times) - December 16, 2010
  • (1) granted, printing a traditional newspaper is very expensive, but so is delivering digital content via Apple's App Store!
  • (2) see the list of authors quoted in my fillips
February 2011
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